MSUC: Chapter 2, part 2 (“Possente spirto”)

(This is the eighth part of my dissertation series. Previous: MSUC: Chapter 2, part 1)

“Possente spirto”

Orpheus tuning his lyre, with docile Cerberus at his feet. (from Musurgia Universalis, Book III)

Orpheus tuning his lyre, with docile Cerberus at his feet. (from Musurgia Universalis, Book III)

In addition to cornetts being used in some of the ritornello pieces, “Possente spirto” also specifies a pair of cornetts. This aria is central to the whole opera both dramatically and musically. Tomlinson writes that Orpheus’s plea to the underworld shares “with the speeches of Seneca’s tragedies a strong Ciceronian impulse to impassioned oration. . . . In such dramas as these, Monteverdi was quick to perceive, emotion counted for all.”[1] “Possente spirto” is unusual in the extensive and varied use of obbligato instruments, which accompany Orfeo’s entreaty. Monteverdi casts different obbligato instruments in succession to underscore Orfeo’s changing rhetoric and emotion. Whenham outlines the aria “Possente spirto” and explains his opinion of the instrumental symbolism in the following way:

The first four stanzas of the aria, in which Orpheus introduces himself and the reason for his journey to the Underworld, represent the art of florid song. They are cast in the form of variations over a slow-moving bass, accompanied by a chitarrone and an organ with wooden pipes, and punctuated by phrases for obbligato instruments—two violins (stanzas 1 and 4), two cornetts (stanza 2) and double harp (stanza 3). The symbolism of these obbligato instruments is not entirely clear. The violins and harp can be related to the Renaissance iconography of Orpheus and his lyre; the cornetts cannot. On balance, I am inclined to believe that Orpheus’s ‘lyre’ is represented by the chitarrone which accompanies his song, while the obbligato instruments, representing the three main classes of late-Renaissance instruments—bowed string instruments, wind/brass instruments, and plucked string instruments­—are intended to suggest that Orpheus conjured up all the available forces of music to aid his plea to Charon.[2]

Although there is some validity to this idea, Whenham later seems to contradict part of his theory: instead of the chitarrone representing Orpheus’s lyre, he ventures that the lyre is symbolized instead by the five-part sinfonia, mentioned above, which was played very softly by the viole da braccio, an organ del legno, and a contrabasso de Viola da gamba. In either case, according to Whenham, Monteverdi intended that stringed instruments, whether plucked or bowed, represent Orpheus’s lyre. Where the cornett failed to win Charon over to Orpheus’s cause, the various representations of the lyre finally got the job done.

Neither Glover’s nor Whenham’s exploration of “Possente spirto” takes into account one of the more interesting examples of text painting in Monteverdi’s works. In my opinion, text painting helps to determine the use of the obbligato instruments in this passage. In the first stanza of this aria the word “passaggio” is highlighted by the virtuosic pair of violins, which perform passaggi, a commonly used term for extended ornaments in seventeenth-century Italy:

Possente spirto, e formidabil nume,

Senza cui far passaggio a l’altra riva

Alma da corpo sciolta invan presume,[3]

In a similar way, the third stanza’s use of the word “paradiso” is cleverly underscored by the use of the double harp, as if Orpheus is invoking heaven itself to help him in his plea, but even heaven cannot help Orpheus in the Underworld:


Alei volt’ho il cammin perl’aer cieco,

A l’inferno non già, ch’ovunque stassi

Tanta bellezza il paradiso ha seco.

However, the second stanza, via an elision of words and double-entendre, presents the most interesting example of text painting. This type of text painting is not unlike “Audi Cœlum,” the echo piece for two tenors in the Vespers of 1610, where the last words of the lines are cleverly truncated in their echo to add an ironic meaning. The cornett accompanies Orpheus’s song in this stanza, where there is a play on the words “cor non è:

Non vivo io, no che poi di vita è priva

Mia cara sposa, il cor non è  piu meco,

E senza cor com’esser può ch’io viva?

The phrase il cor non è piu meco means “my heart is no longer with me.” Nevertheless, the three words, cor non è, if taken out of context and combined into one word (cornone), mean “large horn.” This is the linguistic “flip-side” of the word cornetto (the Italian version of “cornett,” or, literally, “small horn”). Cornone, literally, “large horn,” was the Italian word for the tenor cornett, or the “lysard,” the larger member in the cornett family pitched a fifth below the treble.[4] In the next line, cor can have the double meaning of “heart” and “horn” (and in this context, cor is shorthand for “cornett”). Thus, we can read, “And without the cornett, how can it be that I live?” The obbligato use of cornetts in this stanza therefore makes a perfect text-painting device.

General Cornett Symbolism which Supports Usage in Orfeo

If Monteverdi were following a tradition of associating the cornett with the underworld, death, and the nefarious, then we should be able to find similar examples not only from other composers of his time and before, but also from writers and artists. What theatrical legacy did the cornett have in the sixteenth century? Do the peculiar characteristics of the cornett’s appearance support these themes? Can the taxonomical ancestry for the cornett be established? Does this ancestry support Monteverdi’s use of the cornett? In Orfeo, the cornetts and trombones are contrasted with the stringed instruments underlining place, meaning, and form. Is there precedence for this dichotomy between string and wind instruments in classic Greek and Roman literature, which so fascinated the Renaissance mind?

(Next: The Cornett as a Symbol of Death and the Transitory in the Graphic Arts)

[1]. Tomlinson, Monteverdi and the End of the Renaissance, 141.

[2]. Whenham, “Five Acts: One Action,” 68.

[3]. Emphasis in this and following stanzas is mine.

[4]. Charles Gouse, in his dissertation, “The Cornett: Its History, Literature and Performance Praxis Including a Practical Tutor for Developing Performance Skills” (D.M.A. document, Boston University, 1974), writes, “The tenor cornett was usually designated as corno torto or cornone. The English sometimes referred to this instrument as a ‘great cornett’ or a ‘lyzard’; the latter probably derived in jest from its reptilian shape.” This member of the cornett family definitely did not play the obbligato part in this aria.

No tags for this post.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *